Archives For German Shipwrecks

Capture

News is slowly seeping its way into the press regarding the incredible discovery and excavation of the SS City of Cairo, a World War II British Merchant Navy vessel sunk in the South Atlantic at the height of the Battle of the Atlantic. The stories surrounding the City of Cairo are numerous with an entire book, Goodnight, Sorry for Sinking You, having been written about her sinking and the travails of her survivors. The City of Cairo was traveling from Bombay, India to the UK with stopovers in South Africa and Brazil and among her cargo of 7,422 tons were 2,000 boxes of silver Indian rupees stowed in the Number 4 hold.

In addition to the general cargo and precious metals, the City of Cairo carried 150 passengers with a total complement of 311 souls aboard. Sighted by U-68, a German U-boat captained by Karl-Friedrich Merten, the City of Cairo was quickly dispatched on the night of November 6, 1942 by two torpedoes. Six lives were lost in the initial evacuation into six overcrowded lifeboats. Interested in learning what vessel he had sunk and what she was carrying, Merten surfaced his U-boat to speak with the survivors. He directed them to the closest land and closed with the now semi-famous words, “Goodnight, sorry for sinking you.”

The survivors then began what would become an epic and tragic fight for survival. Unfortunately, the boats rapidly lost touch with one another in the vastness of the South Atlantic. One group consisting of three boats with 155 survivors was picked up on November 19th after thirteen harrowing days at sea. The group had nearly made it to their destination of St. Helena which was 500 miles from the point of sinking. Another group of only 2 survivors was picked up on December 27th only 80 miles from the coast of Brazil. The original group of 17 had sailed nearly 2,000 miles before being rescued. The third group of three survivors were rescued by a German blockade runner, Rhakotis on December 12th. One of the survivors perished aboard the Rhakotis. For the two survivors, their story became even stranger when, on January 1, the Rhakotis was herself intercepted and sunk by Allied warships. Thankfully, the two were rescued and brought home safely to the United Kingdom. In all, 104 persons died as a result of the sinking.

Public information is very limited as the salvors have sought a low profile with the project, but the salvage company Deep Ocean Search is claiming to have recovered 100 tons of silver coins from the wreck of the City of Cairo over the last few years. If true, then it is quite an accomplishment as the wreck lay in 17,000 feet of water and days of sailing from the closest port. The photos of the wreck and coins provided by Deep Ocean Search are quite stunning. There has been no word on whether the company intends to make the coins available for sale or is melting them for sale into the precious metals market.

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Winston Churchill

Richard Freeman’s latest publication, ‘Unsinkable’, is a critical look at Winston Churchill’s role in the Great War. Freeman advances the position that Churchill is given less credit than he deserves for his role in Great Britain’s victory in World War One. The book follows Churchill from his initial days in the Admiralty to his time in Flanders as an infantry officer to his ultimate role as Minister of Munitions at the end of the war. Freeman makes a very compelling case based upon historical evidence and documents not declassified until after the war that Churchill was made the scapegoat for the Gallipoli disaster and that he was the victim of political infighting and poor political choices on his own part.

The book’s 240 pages fly by as Freeman, in writing ‘Unsinkable’, has delivered a highly readable book, even for those not necessarily interested in the inner workings of British politics during World War One. Overall, Freeman should be credited with producing an excellent addition to the vast array of literature about that indefatigable lion of late 19th and early 20th century British life, Winston Churchill.

Sinking_of_the_emigrant_ship_Austria_on_13th_September_1858The 19th century witnessed a wave of emigration from Europe to the Americas and the creation of an entire industry focused on catering to the needs of European emigrants. The sailing of the SS Austria on September 1, 1858 should have been just another trans-Atlantic voyage, however, twelve days later one of the worst maritime disasters of the 19th century would strike the ship and her passengers and crew. Departing from Hamburg with 548 passengers and crew, the ship was only a year old and one of the most modern steam ships in the service of the Hamburg American Line.

Around noon on September 13, the crew began to fumigate the steerage passenger area. A handling mishap of the fumigation equipment by a member of the crew led to a mariner’s worst fear – fire aboard the vessel. The vessel was a veritable tinderbox between its wooden construction and highly varnished and flammable décor. The fire quickly spread throughout the Austria and when the helmsman abandoned the bridge, flames raced down the entire ship as the ship turned into the wind. With nowhere to go but the sea, the passengers and crew flung themselves to the mercy of the waves. Two vessels, the Maurice and Catarina picked up 65 survivors, but, sadly, the remainder of the 538 original passengers and crew perished.

SS John Barry

August 28, 2014 — Leave a comment

John Barry

On the night of August 28, 1944, the American Liberty ship SS John Barry silently glided through the waves on its way to Saudi Arabia loaded with a secret cargo of silver. Unfortunately for the Barry and her crew, the Nazi U-boat U-859 detected the ship and successfully torpedoed her, sending her to the bottom of the Arabian Sea along with millions of silver riyal coins (shown above). Rumors quickly arose that the ship had not only been loaded with 3,000,000 silver riyals for ARAMCO, but also with tons of silver bullion destined for the USSR via India.

Due to the ship’s depth (8,500 feet) the wreck was left undisturbed until a consortium of Americans assembled a hodgepodge of recovery components primarily scavenged from the oil and gas industry. After winning a bid to recover the wreck from the US government, the consortium, dubbed “The John Barry Group” successfully located the Barry in 1994 and used a grap to bring up 1,300,000 (17 tons) of silver riyals before they ceased operations. Although no sign of the Soviet silver shipment was found, some experts still believe there is a high likelihood the Soviet silver is aboard the vessel and was not located due to the primitive technology employed by The John Barry Group. Stalin’s Silver, by John Beasant, presents a well-written account of both the recovery and the rationale for why more silver may be located aboard the Barry. Sadly, due to bureaucratic intransigence, the US government has not re-opened the vessel to a recovery bid process and, until then, neither will the mystery be solved nor the American taxpayer enriched by the recovery fees paid to the US government by a successful salvor.

blucher

Sailing on the Oslo Fjord
CC Image Courtesy of Zen Whisk on Flickr

Operation Weserubung, the Nazi invasion of Denmark and Norway in April 1940, involved multiple aerial and naval thrusts up and down the Norwegian coastline. From Oslo in the south to Narvik in the north, German paratroopers and naval task forces worked in concert to establish footholds in Norway’s strategic centers. Kriegsmarine Group 5 was tasked with sailing through the Oslo Fjord to the Norwegian capital of Oslo where it was to secure the seat of government along with the Norwegian royal family.

The flagship of the naval task force was the newly completed heavy cruiser Blucher which also had embarked 1,500 assault troops for the capture of the capital. As the ships sailed through the narrow confines of the Oslo Fjord, alert Norwegian patrol vessels sounded the alarm and gave troops in the Oscarsborg Fortress precious minutes to prepare their defenses. In a double irony, the two 11-inch guns in the Norwegian fortress were named after Jewish heroes Joshua and Moses and had been built by Krupps in Germany in the late 1890s. Although each gun only fired a single shell, both struck home and inflicted enormous damage on the Blucher. As the cruiser labored further up the fjord, a shore based torpedo battery engaged the ship and struck home with two antique torpedoes.

The ship capsized and whisked nearly 1,000 sailors and soldiers to the bottom of Drobak Sound. With the loss of Blucher, the German task force withdrew and the capture of Oslo was left to Nazi airborne troops. Additionally, the sinking allowed the Norwegian royal family and other key members of the government to escape Oslo and organize resistance in other parts of the country and abroad. For the Kriegsmarine, Blucher would not be the only capital ship lost in Norwegian fjords during the war as Tirpitz would later succumb to Royal Air Force and Navy attacks.

SS Gairsoppa

February 16, 2014 — Leave a comment
sunken silver

SS Gairsoppa

At 10:30pm on February 16, 1941, U-101, captained by Korvetten-Kapitan Ernst Mengersen took up a firing position off the starboard midsection of a lone British freighter slowly making her way through heavy North Atlantic seas. Despite his first spread missing, Mengersen persisted with the attack and fired another torpedo which struck the freighter’s number two hold and caused a massive explosion to rip through the vessel. Less than 20 minutes later the ship slipped beneath the frigid waves of the North Atlantic. Unbeknownst to Mengersen or any of the crew of the U-101, the freighter they had sunk, the SS Gairsoppa, was laden with an incredibly valuable cargo of silver ingots bound from India to the United Kingdom.

Seventy years after the Gairsoppa sinking, an American company, Odyssey Marine Exploration, through a competitive bid was awarded the exclusive salvage contract by the UK government to recover the Gairsoppa’s silver cargo . The UK government’s Ministry of War Transport had paid out a war insurance claim on the silver during World War II and as a result was the legal owner of the silver. Under the contract, which followed standard commercial practices, Odyssey assumed the risk of search and recovery and retained 80% of the net salved value of Gairsoppa silver cargo. During 2012-2013 operations, Odyssey went to work discovering, mapping and recovering the Gairsoppa’s cargo. Over the course of two summers, Odyssey recovered more than 99% of the insured silver bars equaling more than 3.5 million ounces of silver. Although most of the silver was  sent to a UK refinery, investors and shipwreck enthusiasts can purchase 10oz silver ingots and 1/4oz silver Britannias struck by the Royal Mint from silver recovered from the Gairsoppa.

Odyssey Marine

Photo: Odyssey Marine Exploration, Inc.

u-boat pastor

Martin Niemoller

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out – Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out – Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out – Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.

These famous words were composed by German theologian, Confessional Church pastor and anti-Nazi Martin Niemoller. Notably, Niemoller was no academic unfamiliar with the hardships of armed conflict for he had served with distinction in the Imperial German Navy in World War I as a U-boat captain. During his time as second officer aboard U-39, the U-boat and her crew sank 35 ships for over 90,000 tons of shipping. Additionally, while aboard U-73, the boat deployed the mine that sank the RMS Titanic’s sister ship HMHS Brittanic. Niemoller was awarded the Iron Cross First Class for his contributions to the Imperial war effort and ended the war with command of his own U-boat, UC-67.

Like fellow theologian and Confessing Church pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Niemoller spoke out against the Nazi regime and was arrested in 1937 by Nazi authorities. Niemoller spent the remainder of the Nazi years in various prisons and concentration camps including Sachenhausen and Dachau for his “crimes.” Later in life Niemoller became an ardent pacifist, campaigned for nuclear disarmament, won the Lenin Peace Prize and even visited North Vietnam’s communist dictator Ho Chi Minh during the Vietnam War. Sadly, Niemoller’s eight years in Nazi prisons had not completely inoculated him to the dangers of authoritarian government or the ugly necessity of war in certain instances.